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Bookmark: Barbara Cheatley’s reality check

Don’t give her fantasy. Don’t give her sci-fi. When it comes to reading, Barbara Cheatley, owner of Barbara Cheatley Antiques in Claremont, wants a slice of life.

Most often, this reality check comes in the form of biography, her favorite literary genre.

Recently, she read Frank and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, a book by Hazel Rowley charting the unconventional union of the 32nd president and his outspoken first lady, which prevailed through political strife and infidelity.

“They just seemed to work it out,” Ms. Cheatley said. “It’s amazing that they could live such parallel lives and still basically love each other.”

FDR—whose tenure coincided with the tumultuous years of the Depression and World War II—was famously in the company of his longtime secretary and mistress Lucy Mercer at the time of his death. There is also some speculation that Ms. Roosevelt found solace in affairs with friends of both sexes as well as through political action like her support of the United Nations. 

“Eleanor Roosevelt was way ahead of her time,” noted Ms. Cheatley. “She spoke in public a lot and was the first first lady to take an active role, not just in her husband’s life but in her causes.”

According to Ms. Cheatley, the chronicle of the Roosevelts was the perfect follow-up to the previous biography she read, Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt.

David McCullough’s biography charts Roosevelt’s coming of age, from a childhood blighted by frailty but blessed with love to his escape to the Badlands of North Dakota after the tragic death of his first wife. 

Mr. Roosevelt embarked on his Western adventures in 1883, first as a hunter and then as a cattle rancher. His exposure to the decimation of big game and the overgrazing of the grasslands would inspire his later conservation efforts. The experience also “took the snob out of him,” teaching him to value people for their accomplishments as opposed to their social status. 

“It was really interesting how his time in the West affected him,” Ms. Cheatley said.

Along with being ripping yarns, the 2 Roosevelt biographies provided Ms. Cheatley with a sense of the continuity of history. After all, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was orphaned as a child, was given away by her Uncle Teddy at her wedding.

Ms. Cheatley enjoyed learning more about the Roosevelt men, but she more often tends towards books about independent women.

She’ll read anything she can find about Katharine Hepburn, and really enjoyed a recent biography about the American interior designer and socialite Sister Parish, Sister Parish: The Life of the Legendary Interior Designer. (Considering the book only came out September 1, it’s evident Ms. Cheatley—who laments, “I hardly have time for reading”—devours far more books than she lets on.)

The book, which was written by Ms. Parish’s daughter and granddaughter, Apple Parish Bartlett and Susan Bartlett Crater, along with noted designer Bunny Williams, draws heavily from an autobiography Sister Parish began before her death.

Ms. Parish first began designing professionally as a way to help her family through the austerities of the Depression. Among her many accomplishments, she was the first interior designer brought in to decorate the Kennedy White House. She was partial to the English country house look, an aesthetic marked by an eclectic, lived-in and unassuming elegance that Ms. Cheatley shares.

Looking around Ms. Cheatley’s store, full of housewares and collectibles of homey beauty that hearkens to bygone eras, it’s easy to see why she would like Ms. Parish.

Ms. Parish once wrote of her design philosophy, “As a child, I discovered the happy feelings that familiar things can bring—an old apple tree, a favorite garden, the smell of a fresh-clipped hedge, simply knowing that when you round the corner, nothing will be changed, nothing will be gone. I try to instill the lucky part of my life in each house that I do. Some think a decorator should change a house. I try to give permanence to a house, to bring out the experiences, the memories, the feelings that make it a home.”

And of course, there’s also the matter of historical continuity. After trying to remember where she had heard the name Parish before, Ms. Cheatley realized something: “Eleanor Roosevelt got married in Sister Parish’s husband’s grandmother’s house, so I’m back to the Roosevelts.”

While Ms. Cheatley, who most often reads in bed, loves the chronicling of lives, she doesn’t completely eschew fiction. She enjoys Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series and occasionally indulges in a novel by Rosamund Pilter.

“It’s frivolous reading but it’s good reading,”?she said. “She’s a good storyteller.”

Considering her penchant for popular biography, light fiction and floral patterns, it’s somewhat surprising that Ms. Cheatley has a fondness for the somewhat bleak novels of John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her love of Shakespearean works like The Tempest, Hamlet and Macbeth is also notable.  

“I thank my father for that,” she said.

When Ms. Cheatley was in junior high, she watched an adaptation of a Shakespearean play on television with her father.

“My dad said, ‘Barbara, if you get my book of Shakespeare and follow along, you’ll understand the words,’” she recalled. “I did it and a light went off. I really liked it.”

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier

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